early childhood

How one small Indiana city sees child care as a potential economic driver

PHOTO: Fuzzy Bear Ministry Preschool and Daycare
A teacher reads to students at Fuzzy Bear Ministry Preschool and Daycare in Ladoga, Indiana.

In the small city of Crawfordsville, Indiana, Mayor Todd Barton has traced the local workforce shortage back to a surprising problem: the lack of preschools, day cares, and after-school programs.

In his two terms as mayor, he has been pitching and promoting Crawfordsville, a blue-collar city of about 16,000 people that serves as the economic hub for a rural area some 50 miles west of Indianapolis. He has traveled to Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Japan to talk about jobs and try to lure investors. He’s looking to improve the city’s housing, transportation, dining options, and other quality-of-life aspects.

But as he hears from local employers that they can’t find workers to fill hundreds of jobs, particularly in skilled positions, Barton said he also hears from residents that they can’t find or afford somewhere for their children to go while parents are working.

The difficulty of finding child care poses a barrier to wooing new businesses and workers, retaining young professionals, and connecting unemployed adults with jobs.

“We know we have a challenge,” Barton said. “The question is, how much can we impact it?”

So expanding quality child-care options has become Barton’s latest economic development project. And he’s leveraging a popular argument for early childhood education: the workforce benefits.

In Indiana, the burgeoning conversation on early learning hasn’t necessarily been driven by the educational value alone. Thanks in part to a critical push from local businesses, it’s also been about how high-quality prekindergarten can create attractive climates for businesses that want to recruit, help families get back to work and school, and foster the next generation of workers.

“As we’re recruiting folks to come to Indianapolis, the expectation of those who we are recruiting is, ‘Hey, we want our kids in a strong learning environment,’” said Michael O’Connor, director of state government affairs at Eli Lilly and Co. Lilly is among the Indiana businesses that invested in Indianapolis’ pre-K program and also advocated for the state-funded pre-K program for low-income families, known as On My Way Pre-K.

Indiana is spending $22 million this year to provide pre-K to about 4,000 4-year-olds from low-income families in 20 counties. But On My Way Pre-K is still in its early stages, and advocates have estimated 27,000 Hoosier children from low-income families, many in more rural areas like Crawfordsville, lack access to pre-K.

The economic angle will likely play a key role as advocates push to continue funding and potentially look to expand On My Way Pre-K in the 2019 legislative session, a budget-setting year.

The workforce argument for early childhood education is not new, nor is it unique to Indiana. But in this economic-minded Midwestern state, it’s been particularly persuasive in building public investment in pre-K, and raising the profile of early learning opportunities in general.

Showcasing the return on investment in pre-K, O’Connor said, was critical in garnering early support from lawmakers skeptical of the academic value for children and whether early gains would last.

“We had to get past this fundamental belief of, ‘you’re asking us to subsidize day care,’” O’Connor said. “And the way in which we wrestled that was this economic argument.”

In addition to tracking outcomes for children, state officials and researchers at Purdue University are also studying the effects of On My Way Pre-K on families. In the most recent update last October, the state found the program is reaching many children who had not previously been in child care. Slightly more than one-third of surveyed families said their children would not have attended preschool if they hadn’t qualified for On My Way Pre-K.

Parents are also required to be working or in school in order for their children to enroll in On My Way Pre-K. The survey reported that with access to pre-K, some parents were able to find new jobs or start school, increase their work or school hours, stay in a current job, search for a new job, or obtain better shifts at work.

With unemployment rates at a low point in Indiana — 3.2 percent in May, under the national unemployment rate of 3.5 percent — it’s becoming tougher, and more critical, to find new workers. That’s bringing additional interest from employers to pre-K, said Jeff Harris, director of public affairs for Early Learning Indiana, a nonprofit that advocates for early childhood education and runs preschool centers.

“People often say it’s a two-generational strategy, but it’s more,” Harris said, explaining that employers could see smaller benefits, too: fewer absences at work, less turnover of workers, more availability for night classes or other development opportunities.

In Crawfordsville, Barton said local employers are interested in the child-care issue, which they have been discussing at monthly economic development meetings. But many of the city’s largest employers have headquarters elsewhere, making it more difficult to address the issue on the ground.

Chalkbeat could not reach local contacts for comment at some of those businesses, including Penguin Random House, a book publishing company; LSC Communications, a printing company; and Pace Dairy, a dairy processing facility for Kroger.

For Barton, a Republican, his first challenge will be to determine the shortage of child care spaces and the demand for them. He said he plans to look to current providers to expand or improve in quality.

Like many of Indiana’s small and rural areas, Crawfordsville and surrounding Montgomery County simply lack child-care capacity for any ages, let alone high-quality options. Only about a dozen child-care providers in the county are registered with the state, with few on the state’s Paths to Quality rating scale and even fewer in the top quality tiers.

“It would be wonderful to have a lot of day care options and be able to review where you want to send your child based on the quality of the programming, but the reality is there just aren’t many day care options available, period,” said Brandy Allen, director of planning and community development in Crawfordsville. In supporting the economic development effort, she has also shared her personal experience of struggling to find child care.

School leaders say they’re willing to help, but are crunched for funding such efforts.

“We all have early childhood programs or preschools,” said Scott Bowling, superintendent of Crawfordsville schools. “But the limitation there, really – the funding is an issue. I hate that it always has to go back to that, but it always does.”

The state provides some funding for preschoolers with disabilities — but otherwise, districts often dip into their state funding for K-12 to support pre-K or afterschool programs. It’s yet to be seen whether lawmakers will choose to expand and increase funding for On My Way Pre-K, which is not available in Montgomery County.

“The investment that we do make in pre-K is worth it, that’s why we put in the effort. But it’s hard to go too far with that without hurting the K-12 side,” Bowling said.

Similarly, districts are tight on funding for improving the quality of their programs, said North Montgomery Schools Superintendent Colleen Moran.

On My Way Pre-K is an incentive to reach higher quality standards, since the state only allows the funding to go to providers at the top levels of its ranking system, called Paths to Quality.

“We haven’t gone a step further because we don’t have to, and there isn’t any more money to make facilities up to that high 3 or Level 4,” Moran said.

Quality poses perhaps a tougher obstacle than quantity. Supporters like Moran, Bowling, and Barton all want to build quality early childhood programs that go beyond training providers in basic health and safety to providing a planned curriculum that supports child development. Some early learning advocates even say that a low-quality program can be worse than no program at all.

But in a place like Crawfordsville, it’s a struggle to make quality part of the discussion.

In the southeast corner of Montgomery County, Fuzzy Bear Ministry Preschool and Daycare in Ladoga has received several grants to expand and improve in quality. The preschool has moved up to a Level 3, the second-highest rank on Paths to Quality, and is now working toward accreditation in the hopes of rising to Level 4.

Preschool director Kim McVay said improving the quality was “the right thing to do” to better serve children and families. She said she sees an increase in professionalism from teachers, who have received more training.

But as much as she touts the quality of the program — it’s one of just two Level 3 providers in the county — McVay said that’s not usually a deciding factor for families.

“It all comes down, 90 percent of the time, to the bottom dollar,” she said. “If we’re charging more than somebody else — nope, they’re going to go somewhere else.”

Her biggest battle, she said, is educating the community on why it’s important to have high-quality early learning.

“Paths to Quality is not understood as well as it would be in some place like Indianapolis where they have it everywhere,” McVay said. “It’s going to take time. You’re not going to change overnight the mindset that you’re starting out with.”

leading the state

Three things we heard at a gubernatorial candidates forum on early childhood

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat
Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, and Lang Sias, the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, spoke at forum on early childhood issues.

Stark differences in how Colorado’s two would-be governors plan to tackle early childhood issues were clear at a candidate forum Monday evening.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee, envisions free full-day preschool and kindergarten for all Colorado children — a sweeping and pricey expansion of what’s currently available.

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Lang Sias, who stood in for gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, said Republicans would focus public funds on narrower programs that benefit the poorest children.

Currently, Colorado funds early childhood programs for some of its young children. The state provides half-day preschool to 4-year-olds with certain risk factors, but the program covers only some of those who qualify. In addition, the state reimburses districts for just over half the cost of full-day kindergarten, leaving districts to pay for the rest or pass on the cost to families through tuition. Last spring, lawmakers expanded the state income tax credit for child care costs, but most families still need to come up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month.

Monday’s event at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science represented a rare opportunity to hear candidates address early childhood issues, which are often overshadowed on the campaign trail by topics such as housing, roads and health care. While the forum highlighted some of the big early childhood ideas championed by each campaign, it also left plenty of unanswered questions.

Stapleton, Colorado’s state treasurer, was originally slated to speak at the forum, but backed out citing family obligations. Sias, a state representative from Arvada and a member of the House Education Committee, spoke in his place.

Polis and Sias didn’t debate each other at Monday’s forum, or otherwise interact. Polis went first, giving a short statement about his early childhood platform then answering several questions posed by moderator Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Sias followed suit.

The event was sponsored by Constellation Philanthropy, a group of funders focused on early childhood issues. (Constellation is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Here are three things we learned from the forum:

The candidates have different ideas about which young children need help and how to provide it

In discussing his plans to create universal full-day preschool and kindergarten, Polis talked about using a public-private financing mechanism that’s sometimes called “social impact bonds.”

In this kind of financing — also called “pay for success” — private investors or philanthropists pay up front for social programs and get repaid with interest if those programs save public money by reducing the need for costly services such as special education or reading remediation. If a project doesn’t yield the hoped-for savings, the investors lose some or all of their money.

Polis said if he wins in November, he’ll immediately “work out how to partner with philanthropy to create more early childhood education for all income levels.”

Currently a version of social impact bonds is being used to pay for full-day preschool for some students in the Westminster school district north of Denver, a fact Polis mentioned Monday. Still, the financing mechanism is relatively untested in Colorado’s education sphere and it’s unclear how it might be scaled to pay for something as ambitious as statewide full-day preschool and kindergarten.

When talking about the Republican ticket’s early-education priorities, Sias described early childhood education as “incredibly important” but “very inequitably distributed.”

“We want to focus our public spending on those who are least able to afford it on their own,” he said.

He cited a proposal for education savings accounts that allow families to set aside money tax-free for educational expenses, including early childhood education.

“We realize that is more focused on middle-class and above families,” he said, “but by targeting that money using that program, we feel we will have more available to target the folks at the bottom of the spectrum who really cannot avail themselves of that opportunity.”

Education savings accounts don’t typically work for low-income parents because they have no extra money to set aside for future expenses.

The candidates would take different approaches to strengthening the early childhood workforce

In a field marked by low pay and tough working conditions, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers is a chronic problem. The candidates had ideas about how to bulk up the workforce.

Sias advocated for a residency program to help turn out new early childhood teachers, similar to what he’s previously proposed to help address the K-12 teacher shortage. He said such programs are data-driven, helping retain teachers for longer periods and improving student results.

He also floated the idea of recruiting midlife career-changers to early childhood work — “folks north of 50” — and hinted that they would work in the low-paid field.

“Is that an opportunity to tap into … folks who would like to fill those spots who maybe don’t have the same set of issues that millennials do in terms of how long they want to stay and how long they need to be committed, and frankly how much they need to be paid?”

While some middle-aged people do enter the field, mediocre pay, a maze of state regulations, and the growing push to boost providers’ education levels could make it a tough sell.

Polis talked about creating partnerships with colleges to beef up the credentials of people who currently work in the early childhood field.

He said it’s important to “bridge the skills gap” for those whose hearts are already in the work. He didn’t address how he could dramatically expand preschool and kindergarten simply by focusing on the existing workforce, where turnover can be as high as 40 percent annually.

Neither candidate talked about how he would boost compensation for early childhood workers, whose median pay in Colorado is $12.32 an hour, Jaeger said.

Both candidates agree that Colorado can do much better by its youngest residents

When asked how Colorado is doing overall in supporting young children and their families, both candidates agreed that the state has a long way to go.

Sias emphasized that low-income children continue to be left out. Polis talked about the lack of uniform access to full-day kindergarten.

Both candidates expressed interest in working with bipartisan coalitions on solutions.

“There’s so many people in our state who want to do right by their kids,” said Polis. “It’s really going to take folks from across the spectrum coming together.”

Sias, who argued for a combination of business-minded acumen and public money for early childhood, asked the audience to partner with lawmakers in finding what programs work.

He said he and Stapleton are “more than willing to work across the aisle with folks that we like and respect, and have knowledge in this area.”

Early Childhood

Jeff Bezos says he will use his riches to open Montessori preschools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen
A student in a Detroit Montessori program. Jeff Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The latest effort to improve early childhood education for poor children comes from the richest man alive: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The preschools, Bezos wrote, will be free for students and inspired by the Montessori approach, in which children direct their own learning in an environment that is prepared for them to explore. Montessori instruction has traditionally been available only in private schools, but new efforts to make the model more accessible have taken hold, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Bezos also signaled that he intends to apply his famously stringent standards to the new schools. The hands-on CEO reportedly still reads emails from Amazon customers and has been known to berate executives when the customer experience suffers. At the preschools, he wrote, “The child will be the customer.”

Much about the initiative is unclear, from what “tier-one” means to where, when, and how many schools will open. Bezos’s announcement did not acknowledge the current bipartisan movement to fund preschool more widely, so it’s unclear whether his network might ever seek public money or how it might interact with — or even crowd out — existing efforts to expand preschools.

It’s also not clear how much transparency to expect from Bezos’s effort, which he called the Day One Fund. A number of wealthy individuals, including Mark Zuckerberg, have organized their giving through a limited liability company, rather than a nonprofit. This approach does not require disclosing who receives grants and allows the organizations to give to political causes and invest in for-profit companies.

Research has pointed to long-run benefits of early childhood education programs. One recent study found that the benefits extended to multiple generations — the children of children who participated in the federal Head Start program were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

In addition to preschools, the Day One Fund will tackle homelessness, according to Bezos, who crafted his giving strategy after asking his Twitter followers how he should spend his wealth.